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Finite and Infinite Games Paperback – January 5, 2013
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About the Author
James P. Carse is Professor Emeritus of history and literature of religion at New York University. A winner of the University’s Great Teacher Award, he is author of The Religious Case Against Belief (2008) and Breakfast at the Victory: The Mysticism of Ordinary Experience (1994). Carse lives in New York City and Massachusetts.
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Top Customer Reviews
Breaking new ground in the way we can think about the infinite versus the finite, Carse questions these two concepts in the form of games that we play in everyday life. His writing style reminds one of a physicist’s description of the components of complexity—all things and no things being possible at the same time. He flushes out the rules for playing infinite and finite games, demonstrating how everything in life is interrelated and interdependent, creating wholes greater than the sum of their parts, true to systems thinking. By using this perspective, Carse then goes deeper into each system, finite and infinite, showing how one must interact within it in order to be finite or infinite in one’s play, as a cyberneticist would. All of a sudden, one’s perception about the infinite and finite is transformed from typically a religious/spiritual viewpoint to one more humanistic and closer to daily experience.
Because Carse changes so drastically the language one generally finds in works discussing the finite and infinite, it is a little difficult to grasp the game images he creates, but sticking with the book is well worth the difficulty at the beginning. For instance, he starts out saying, “There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the game” (Carse, 2012, p.3). Once the rules for playing both finite and infinite games are laid out, Carse takes the reader through the various ways we tend to play these games through politics, religion, sexuality, the roles people choose, society, culture, and our relationship to nature, to name a few. One ends up with a completely new way of thinking about how to approach life. This deeply profound little book is a truly a game changer.
It starts with the intriguing concept that there are two types of games: finite games with the goal of ending the game with a victor and infinite games with the goal of keeping the game going forever and never ending.
This book is hard to explain. You just have to try it and see if you like it.
As the title suggests, this is a work on finite and infinite games that purports "a vision of life as play and possibility." So if life is a game you should play it and if you play it you should follow the rules. Right, but what are the rules. Well, here enters Carse, who in seven chapters defines the game and unfolds and explains the rules.
The seven chapters are named in a very sportive (and even poetic) manner: There are at least to kind of games; No one can play a game alone; I am the genius of myself; A finite game occurs within a world; Nature is the realm of the unspeakable; We control nature for societal reasons; Myth provokes explanation but accepts none of it.
And there you are. As I said, the book is written in an aphoristic mode, as in Also sprach Zarathustra/Thus Spoke Zarathustra: German/English Bilingual Text (German Edition), but with much more sense than that Nietzsche's brick. "Finite and Infinite..." is not a wanton sum of sayings more or less wise. So please do not confound games with lightness or pastime. At least not in this book. So you have to keep in mind, as long as you read, that this is a book about life ("A vision of life..."), not about playing games as a part of your life.
Then, what are the rules? The rules are simple but full of derivatives or branches that have no limit. Like life itself that starts with a very simple origin and grows up in complexity and variety. That's why the first paragraph says that "There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite; the other infinite." As long as this rule begins to increase in complexity is very helpful to keep that definition in mind. Carse says that a game can be won, so the game ends, which is the finite case. Or the game is playing continuously because the purpose is not winning but to follow up the game, which is the infinite case.
Let's quote Carse: "Infinite players cannot say when their game began, nor do they care. They do not care for the reason that their game in not bounded by time. Indeed, the only purpose of the game is to prevent it from coming to an end, to keep everyone in play." Sounds mysterious? It is. We play infinite games as long as we live, and the finite games we play are there not only to compensate (or to maintain under control the anxiety and) our ignorance of who wins at last in the infinite version, but also to be prepared against, and to be educated for the surprises and twists that life put in front of us: "To be prepared against surprise is to be 'trained.' To be prepared for surprise is to be 'educated.'"
The probe of this work descends very deep. That's the reason why the last chapter is dedicated to the myth issue. For several years I've been studying the singularities of a myth, the purpose they have, why they appeared, why they are here with us in spite of the exponential growing of knowledge through science and the technological development associated with it. And Carse offers here one of the most astounding answers to my search, which is presented in the very title of the chapter: "Myth provokes explanations but accepts none of it." It is as if finite and infinite games collide in this final movement of the play, remembering us what the author told us at the beginning of the book: "Infinite players cannot say when their game began, nor do they care. They do not care for the reason that their game is not bounded by time. Indeed the only purpose of the game is to prevent it from coming to an end, to keep everyone in play." If that is not the very source of a myth, then what.
Insofar as this book (a very brief book indeed, with 149 pages) is about games, we as a readers are players also, so maybe there are as many readings as readers. Or almost. Yet, it remains (or let) something that to me is unequivocal: life can be seen as a game so it has rules. This book propose that rules in a temporal basis (finite vs. infinite). If you look for, you could find others, but to me this book offers the most amazing explanation to the philosophical question that beats under our skins all the time: what is life?
A game. "There are at least to kind of games..."
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It's a challenging book to read, however, it's worth it.Read more